Wednesday, 23 November 2011

Literature and Science

by Simon James

Three years after C. P. Snow's famous complaint of the academy's 'two cultures', a text was published that has become very familiar to students of the History and Philosophy of Science: Thomas Kuhn's The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962). In this book, Kuhn coins the term 'paradigm shift' to describe the way that science moves from one conceptual framework to another. Kuhn shows the notion of 'scientific truth' to be not one of increasing transcendent, unshakeable and permanent certainty, but that it might be more provisional, contingent, the best hypothesis available given the current data available – in other words, to think of truth more in the way that researchers in the Arts and Humanities might understand it.

It is a curious paradox, however, that when writers in the Arts and Humanities incorporate science into their work, sometimes they fail to apply the same combination of rigour and scepticism that we bring to history, philosophy or aesthetic artefacts in our own disciplines. A scientific 'fact' can become an idée fixe that subjugates all the other components, a sword to cut through the Gordian knots of literary production and consumption. For H. G. Wells, along with Snow one of the rare literary writers to receive a training as a scientist, the most important thing to be learned from science is the fact that all human beings share a common biological origin. For Wells, this proves national and racial identity to be a fiction: therefore humanity owes it to science to renounce the idea of nation states and form a utopian world government that will allow every individual to reach their potential.

As I discuss in my forthcoming book Maps of Utopia, that this single idea comes to dominate Wells's fictional and non-fictional output is one of the reasons why only books from the first fifteen of his fifty-year writing career still tend to be read now (although it is also forgotten that in Wells's own lifetime, his best-selling books were not his scientific romances, but the speculative non-fiction Anticipations, the World War One novel Mr. Britling Sees It Through and The Outline of History, a history of the world from the evolution of man to the desired utopian future).

Among literary critics, a further example might be Professor Joseph Carroll of the University of Missouri-St Louis. Carroll is strongly opposed to the 'theory revolutions' that convulsed literary study in the late twentieth century, and which sought to instruct that the meanings of language are unreliable, provisional, even indefinitely deferred. Carroll, a scholar of the Victorian cultural critic Matthew Arnold, wanted to put literary study back on a firmer basis – and that basis is the work of Charles Darwin. Literary critics should again be encouraged to preach that literature's function is to teach us about human nature, because we have books that tell us what human nature is: The Origin of Species and The Descent of Man. Unfortunately, the work of Carroll and his disciples, while formidably erudite, can produce rather crude readings of the texts themselves: to be told that we read Austen to learn about mating strategies, or that Homer constitutes an adaptive technology for better chances in natural selection neither illuminates nor dignifies the text very much – nor, for that matter, humanity either. Carroll's claim that literary merit is something that can be scientifically measured has yet to find wide acceptance, and few English Departments teach 'evolutionary' literary theory alongside theories of formalism, gender, history or psychoanalysis.

Perhaps a part of the problem is that literary theory, like science and social science, looks to create meaningful universal statements, while literary criticism is more concerned with the particular, the specific, the individual details that enable a text to create the range of effects that it does. Literariness itself thrives on indeterminacy – a well-worn measure of literariness is the capacity of the greatest texts to produce multiple meanings in the minds of different readers (or even from the same reader at different times). Evolutionary theory, in this respect, is like a mechanical digger. Mechanical diggers are useful things if you're looking to make something big, like a theory of the origin of the human species, but less useful in circumstances when what you really need is a scalpel or even just a spade.

When Professor Nick Saul of the German Department and I set up an interdisciplinary conference under the Institute of Advanced Studies' 'Darwin' theme, we intended less to use Darwin's theories as a 'universal solvent' that would liquefy the differences between literary texts, than to engage with the specific ways in which writers and critics actually think about these theories. In this enterprise, we were very much inspired by Gillian Beer's groundbreaking study Darwin's Plots (1983), which in both deals with the ways in which writers such as George Eliot and Thomas Hardy think about Darwin, and also brilliantly reads The Origin of Species itself as a literary text, tracing the significance of the stories it tells, its metaphors and its lexical choices. (The proceedings of our conference have recently been published as The Evolution of Literature.)

Durham's drive towards making its research culture more interdisciplinary is the most exciting thing that has happened to my own work. Through engaging with the history of economics, with theories of evolution and of culture, new perspectives have opened up on the texts I have chosen to study – but always as a way of enabling aesthetic response to be more complex, not of giving me a key that will automatically unlock the 'answer' of literary interpretation. I am continually inspired by the work of my colleagues in synthesising other forms of knowledge with literary study, such as Professor Pat Waugh's work on literature and neuroscience, or Dr Angela Woods on culture and psychiatry. More recently, conversations with Dr Charles Fernyhough of the Psychology Department have made me challenge the Freudian model of autobiographical memory with which English has long been comfortable, perhaps too comfortable – surely it must be the case that insights gleaned from empirical psychology might change for the better the way critics view Dickens's dramatisations of the acts of memory, and of his supposed childhood trauma in the Blacking Factory?

Simon James talking about science fiction with Iain M. Banks
(Image courtesy of New Writing North).

Snow's diagnosis of two separate cultures of the arts and the sciences is less true than it was, although traces of it remain: consider, for example, the way in which science is constantly misreported in the media, or whether it is more socially acceptable to be innumerate than to be a bad speller. For all this, it can nonetheless be very inspiring to see how your work might look through the eyes of another discipline, or to try to speak about it in another language from your own. I'm very lucky that the raw data of my subject, in my own case, novels, can be of great interest to academics in other disciplines, and I've learned so much from talking to scientists and social scientists, as well as other researchers in the arts, in contexts provided by the IAS and the Centre for Medical Humanities; and I'm looking forward to more such conversations in the new Centre for Sex, Gender and Sexuality.

If you enjoyed this post, you may also be interested in the discussions continuing on the Centre for Medical Humanities blog:

Simon J. James is Senior Lecturer in Victorian Literature in the Department of English Studies at Durham University. He has recently completed Maps of Utopia, a study of H. G. Wells and high culture, and is currently working on books on Dickens and memory, and male bonding in fin-de-siecle fiction. He will be contributing to the Durham University IAS Public Lecture series on the Persistence of Beauty on 31 January.

This piece first appeared in The Grove, vol. 17, November 2011.

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